Instructions for creating England

My speculative poetry students have been asking brilliant questions during the past two weeks: what’s Tracy K. Smith’s attitude towards a posthuman future in Life on Mars? How does assigning a higher priority to the natural world change Marvin Bell’s sense of what death means? How do Jeannine Hall Gailey’s villainesses differ from their counterparts in Ovid and Hans Christian Andersen, and why? What does James Merrill admire in that other weird spiritualist, Yeats, and what does he reject? This is also a course in research writing, so each student is pursuing a topic and teaching some part of it to the rest of the class. Their presentations have been wildly interesting, though, of course, pulling coherent papers out of a mess of tough questions is a hard thing to do—we’ll see next week how well the actual writing is going.

I’m “working” on my own essays pretty minimally right now: using my classes, for sure, to read and think about research, but not putting fingers to keyboard much. My students’ efforts, though, made me want to try. So, briefly: I’ve been dunking my toes in Lubomir Doležel’s Heterocosmica on and off for a couple of years now, interested in his descriptions of how novelists construct and readers enter fiction’s incomplete possible worlds, and trying to figure out how and why poets summon up possible worlds, too. They certainly do in epic and other long narrative modes, but my gut says that lyric poems can also constitute virtual universes, although they’re even more incomplete. I suspect, for instance, that one reason I prefer reading single-author collections to anthologies, and why knowing a poet’s biography deepens my pleasure in the verses, is that increased data helps me fill in more details of whatever place a poem evokes.

That’s a reader’s approach to poetry’s possible worlds; the writer’s involves a series of technical problems. How, in the space of a few lines, do you absorb a stranger into some alternate spacetime? During those class presentations last week, I realized that one of the poets I’ve been teaching addresses that problem quite overtly. As Chase talked about Todorov in relation to Sally Rosen Kindred’s Peter Pan poems—is Kindred hesitating between realities, as Todorov says fantastic stories do, or do her poems inhabit some straight-up version of the marvelous?—it clicked for me how much her chapbook Darling Hands, Darling Tongue concerns literary world-building. Look at this passage from “What Wendy Darling Tells Her Brother” (full version here):

Don’t you remember
the smell of her—lemon and ash—
her skin’s speckle like wrens’ eggs
and the warm wind of her moving in
off the edge of the bed, to hover
by cool sheets and bring her hands
down on your face
like rain?

Kindred’s Wendy, as the stand-in for the poet in this collection, is struggling to create successfully absorbing fictional universes. In this case, she wants desperately to remind her brother about England and the parents he’s half-forgotten. One of her strategies is to call up sensory detail as vividly as possible–sight, smell, touch. Simile and metaphor are portals, too. Michael in Neverland knows what warm wind and rain feel like, so they might help him remember or imagine. From Wendy’s current vantage, England isn’t exactly real (tangible? available? important?), but the storyteller misses it all the same:

And though it wasn’t real
it was home. And though it was in time
it was ours, the mother and father
who draped the air, their bodies strange
and soft with yearning.
It felt right to have a mother, to live
in the lap of a world I hadn’t made.
Don’t you remember?
It felt just like this story
that I am telling you.

Stories transport us, and certain ones transport us to “the lap of a world” safer and better than the mundane existences we often seem to inhabit. For Kindred, reality is relative and fragile. Wherever you are, you might try hard to believe in an elsewhere–maybe that effort to believe defines you–but your longing can never be fully satisfied. Not only do Neverland and England shimmer a bit, mirage-like, but Kindred’s also invoking the universe of oral storytelling from the pages of a handbound chapbook. This gap between print and voice is one engine, in fact, of lyric poetry’s power: nostalgia for sound, or attempts to represent its complexity in little black characters, drive verse’s turns and repetitions. In Darling Hands, Darling Tongue, the loss of a voiced world also entails all the losses of growing up.

Where are we? How does it feel to be not there? I type these questions into a blog-box, writing and not-writing, reading and not-reading, having just tipped from a long winter into a spring with snow in the forecast. I think Todorov is wrong about genre: fantasy is bigger than he allows, and often entails not just hesitating between explanations but understanding that our wildest speculations can be more real than, say, our social security numbers. There’s no knowing what matters, after all, until you lose it or find a way to step away from it. The oscillations of my professorial life show me that, too. Fantasies about writing’s Neverland, viewed through the portal of teaching English, clarify what’s at stake in both universes.

What I really read, and why, and what it means (Splinter Reviews Part 2)

High winds are plucking the last shriveled leaves off the branches while professional reading piles accumulate, isolating as snow-drifts: student papers, dossiers and writing samples from job applicants, scholarly mss I’ve promised to evaluate. At war with myself about whether I really need a Sunday off or a Sunday making a dent in it all, I decided to collect evidence from my Twitter account of what I’ve read and watched for fun since July. Some surprises: first, even when school’s in session, I read plenty of novels and feel no guilt about tossing off some half-baked remark about many of them. I’m actually less likely to tweet about a book that cuts deep—I reread Erdrich’s Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, for example, and it really impressed me, but that’s not in evidence here. Second, I’m less likely to tweet about poems. I read and liked Dean Young’s Falling Higher and Sally Rosen Kindred’s Darling Hands, Darling Tongue during the past few months, as well as revisiting older collections including Langston Hughes’ Montage of a Dream Deferred, but didn’t have pithy observations about them. Is poetry less susceptible to summation? Or am I just more loyal to its complexities? I also would have told you that I prefer full poetry collections to the fragments in magazines, but that’s not borne out by what I’ve actually done lately—I read a single-author volume a couple of times a month this fall, but absorbed much more poetry online, through anthologies, or via the journals I subscribe to. I know we all consume media in part by convenience and happenstance—watching the mediocre movie that plays locally rather than the great one featured in some Hip But Distant Metropolis—but I wonder about that gray area between laziness and actual preference. I don’t always like the things I’m supposed to like, but rooting out those prejudices and admitting what I actually personally enjoy in a piece of art can be surprisingly hard. I haven’t kept a proper journal in decades so Twitter-as-reading-diary actually turns out to be sort of revealing.

Poetry and nonfiction:

On Jean Valentine’s Break the Glass: hairline crack in a bowl of light but the light doesn’t leak away

From Quiver, Nat Anderson on sleep as her squeeze: “he turns that key so soft, I won’t know he’s come/ until he’s left me.”

& today’s other delight: the cranky connoisseurship of Fry’s Ode Less Travelled. He didn’t even have to write it for tenure!

If unpersuaded about deep links between EB Browning and Battlestar Galactica, check out the essays in Derek Furr’s Suite For Three Voices

Sf and adjacent territories:

No sf in Karen Joy Fowler’s wonderful We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, but it is all sf: sneaking up on the unknowable

Jo Walton’s Sulien walks in god-haunted woods between familiar versions of the world. I mean, she REALLY does.

Jo Walton’s Among Others made me wonder if I’ve been practicing magic for years. It’s brill.

Want to visit 2312‘s version of post-global-warming NYC and float along canals between skyscrapers #sfvacationdestination

Traversed @GrahamJoycebook‘s weird alt-world Silent Land through weird alt-world of headphones. Ears still feel packed with snow

@EmilyCroyBarker‘s #RealMagic, a scholar finds a portal. Turns out ice demons really like WC Williams, but Ashbery, not so much

What woke me up about #DoctorSleep is the poetry: incantation, sure, but also Eliot, Auden, and a kickass poet-great-grandma

Movies:

The excellent Much Ado reminded me cynics (Beatrice) morally trump idealists (Claudio). Also made me envy @josswhedon’s beautiful house

#Gravity proves my mom right: it’s crucial to wear nice underwear on field trips because accidents do happen

For the theory behind these tweet-length assessments see “Reviews the Length of an Irritating Splinter.” For another kind of conversation about art we love and how it worms into our brains, go to the latest issue of Midway, scroll down, and see some works of visual art by Carolyn Capps and the poems I wrote in response to them. The real landscape at hand when I drafted them were the Virginia hills around the VCCA.